Monthly Archives: October 2014


Vashti Bunyan has carved herself a nice little nook in the alternative music canon. Over 40 years ago she released Just Another Diamond Day, a work of inimitable pastoral beauty. Her work passed by largely unrecognised until the 2000’s when she was anointed the godmother of the freak-folk movement- led by the likes of Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart, and Joanna Newsom. Since then Bunyan has resurfaced and not only collaborated with all the aforementioned artists (most notably in Prospect Hummer with Animal Collective), but has also recently released her third album.

What makes Vashti Bunyan’s music so interesting now is that instead of casting aside her original style for something barely recognisable, as we see with Scott Walker’s re-emergence, she has sought to preserve it. Yet now these songs about youth and joy are sung by a 69 year old. It is the framework that has changed, not the theme. Bunyan’s voice wavers in holding a note too long, her piano stutters to find a steady rhythm, and her guitar picking softens as they go on.

However we do not feel a process of decay. Or perhaps this decay isn’t felt as negative. For between these cracks and imperfections we see a new fragile beauty shine through. Bunyan sings ‘Gunpowder’ in near gasps, as she tries to catch then note and then hold it.   Or in ‘Holy Smoke’ she is half a beat too slow, as the voice tries to escape through the breath. It is almost as if the music is caught in constant tension between the songs’ natural grace and her near-overwhelming effort to express them.

Heartleap is not Bunyan’s comeback album, but more the follow-up to the comeback, which would be Lookaftering in 2005. And yes the albums are quite similar, not only sonically but also visually- with the ligatured album titles and corresponding covers of tapestry-style woodland animals. Lookaftering is a beautiful album, and very effectively established Bunyan’s new delicate style. And so in its likeness does Heartleap establish itself in Lookaftering’s shadow? Indeed the songs sound less adventurous and more faded- as if descending from sepia to grey.

Yet in this fading, we see a subtle refinement of Bunyan’s craft. In Lookaftering Bunyan’s songs are expansive with fugues and incremental use of instrumentation as heard in ‘Same but Different’. Meanwhile in Heartleap, Bunyan zones in on the specifics. In ‘Mother’ she recalls a moment as a child watching her mother dance. Bunyan only slightly adjusts the wording for the second verse, as if to even further refine the moment and the view from the ‘slightly opened door’.

The instrumentation is also much sparser on this album, which shows faith in the notes and the voice to carry the song, as exemplified in ‘Jellyfish’ and ‘Gunpowder’. This sparseness also allows more emphasis on the lyrics themselves, which before I had never really treated independently but more as factors of the Bunyan’s songs. However, for example in the opener ‘Across the Water’ the deep pastoral language glides unavoidably by: ‘Every day is every day/One foot in front of the other/ Learn to fall with the grace of it all/ As stones skip across the water’. Maybe the reason they are unavoidable is because they are noticeably bleak. The sadness seeps through idyllic scenes. In ‘Blue Shed’ Bunyan yearns for a ‘blue shed with nobody in it’, and in ‘Gunpowder‘ she notes with reluctant acceptance ‘It seems however hard I try/Those words that I let fly out of my mouth/ don’t ever say what I want them to say.’

By Heartleap, the stakes seem to have been raised from waking up into diamond days, to addressing the final sleep. Vashti Bunyan announced that this would be her final album, and listening to it can you see why. By the eponymous and closing track of the album you can hear the framework finally falling apart. At the end Bunyan can barely let out the word ‘heartleap’ before the piano and guitar start disassembling and fade away. Not since Big Star’s Third could I feel someone slipping away so vividly. The experience is harrowing but also one worth having, as predictably the sweetness always comes with the bitter.



My extended journey with this wonderful album began in 2010. I was in Ecuador travelling with a beautiful girl from Montreal and she recommended them to me. I remember listening to ‘I’ll Believe in Anything’ and ‘Modern World’ and was blown away by both songs. The calculated hysteria on ‘I’ll Believe’ shook me so much, that I almost had to ration listening to it for my own self-preservation (a policy not enforced since a painful combo of teenage angst and the Pixies’ ‘Where is my Mind’ in the mid-2000s).

Then an iceberg hit before I could even board the Queen Mary proper. Two weeks later I listened to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!’s eponymous debut album for the first time and was immediately hooked. Unfortunately, to my mind, Wolf Parade became a faded version of Clap Your Hands. Alec Ounsworth’s vocals sounded more unhinged than Spencer Krug’s, the CYHSY guitar riffs seemed to run circles round Wolf Parade’s heavy-handed chords. Most of all they were much easier to like: while Wolf Parade seemed to moan about things in the style of out-dated ‘Born to Run-isms’, Clap Your Hands had songs with children’s xylophones and circus shanties. Then the final nail in the coffin was finding out that Wolf Parade’s album derives from a rowdy gig where they trashed a cruise ship called ‘The Queen Mary’- to me this smacked of ultimate indie douche-baggery.

Come 2014- the year of disinterment. I was arguing with my friend on the best indie-rock album of the 2000s, his was Wolf Parade’s Queen Mary, mine was still Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! Being an adult, I realised the only way I could wipe my friend’s wrongness in his face like a sour cream pie was to give Apologies to the Queen Mary a fair hearing. And very soon I realised that, like Pet Sounds and Power Corruption and Lies, I had managed to judge an album by only knowing its core hits- not an adult attitude worthy of wielding the sour cream pie of righteousness. And of course, inevitably after several re-listens I became a standard-bearer for the Wolf Parade.

The first thing that needs to be mentioned is how unlikely a classic the Apologies should be. To start, the majority of songs are re-hashed tunes from former projects. ‘Modern World’ was originally a sub-standard indietronica tune, ‘I’ll Believe in Anything’ was a sketch from Spencer Krug’s Sunset Rubdown project. In fact all the core songs of the album were already showcased as middling tunes that sounded tired before even leaving the starting post.

So it comes as a huge surprise that instead of seeming like patched-up jingles given one last canter round the course before being gunned in the stables, the songs come so full of second wind that you can almost see the veins pulsing. They are both tighter (see ‘Grounds For Divorce’ before/after) as well as more expansive (see ‘Dinner Bells’ before/after). Of course much of this comes from the superb production work done by Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock- but my version is that these demos and EPs were Wolf Parade’s way of seeing whether they could actually make this form of music work.  One could imagine that from the seasoned musicians as were Wolf Parade, it seemed almost down to chance of whether one band will work or the whether it will be buried in the archives of Canadian noughties indie collectors.  Fortunately these demos gave enough hope to apply flesh to them.

The second most obvious point to make is how unlikely a band Wolf Parade is. The band came into being after Spencer Krug was offered a spot for a gig in 2003, and had three weeks to find a band and create material before the appointed gig date. He contacted Dan Boeckner and obviously the rest is history.  But what is most confusing is how almost polarisingly different the two lead singers are. Krug’s arsenal is the synth, the voice of Bowie having his balls slowly twisted, and a taste for unorthodox songcraft with jagged beats (e.g.‘You are a Runner’) and a quest for spaciousness (‘Dinner Plates’). He has then gone on to collaborate with similar art-house mystics such as Destroyer and Frog Eyes, in the band Swan Lake.

Meanwhile Boeckner’s arsenal consists of power-chord guitar, the voice of a weedier Springsteen-acolyte, and a songcraft shining a new light on the traditional theme of existential angst in modern society. Post-Wolf Parade Boeckner has gone on to form Divine Fits with nasal-cool Spoon singer Britt Daniel. Now I don’t want to be pressing a point but, apart from their shared love for music, these guys would literally be sitting on opposite sides of the cafeteria at high school. And if this contrast was pronounced enough, take a look at the track list on Apologies. Apart from a Boeckner/Krug double-bill in the middle, every song is alternated between Boeckner and Krug, a feat even the more sonically similar lead duos Bell/Chilton, Mould/Hart, Avey Tare/Panda Bear didn’t attempt doing.

And yet, despite the musicians’ diversities and their songs’ shaky history the whole album flows so well together. ‘You Are a Runner And I Am My Father’s Son’ tees up the drum beats for ‘Modern World’, while the bleeding synth stabs of ‘I’ll Believe in Anything’ bleed into ‘Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts’. Meanwhile there’s beautiful mirroring throughout the album as Boeckner and Krug both offer their crooning ballads of ‘Same Ghost Every Night’ and ‘Dinner Plates’ in somewhat playful competition. But the songs work best when the performers bring their own outsider version to the other’s soundscape: Krug’s descending organ scale at the end of ‘It’s a Curse’, Boeckner’s backbone riff to ‘Grounds for Divorce’, Krug’s backing “Whoos” on both ‘Modern World’ and ‘Shine a Light’…I’ll stop the list now before it becomes too encyclopaedic- but the cross-pollination is seriously vast. Now the point I’m making is not to argue that Wolf Parade technically shouldn’t work. It is more that throughout the album they maintain a perfect balance between creating space for expansive collaboration while also fervently maintaining one’s own idiosyncratic style.

With this fervent idiosyncrasy I should also say that Apologies is certainly not a concept album.  Some of these songs seem hilariously misplaced: ‘Dinner Bells’ sounds like the building finale, only to be book-ended by ‘This Hearts on Fire’ which then makes ‘Hearts’ feel more like an epilogue than a conclusion. Likewise, the opener ‘You are a Runner’ gives little space for an introduction before Krug squeals ‘I’ve got a number on me!’ at the listener. This seeming incoherence most likely derives from the fact that each of these songs create such a powerful sense of their own worlds, that they refuse to work as padding between the stronger hits.

And with this, it is the energy that has kept me coming back to the album. An energy of brutal individuality, as well as willingness to share their emotion in order to climb the desperate ascent to some kind of higher meaning, as Krug screams: ‘I’ll believe in anything/if you’ll believe in anything’. Or perhaps, this final goal isn’t to find higher meaning, but, from a more nihilistic perspective, to find anything but meaningless-ness: ‘waiting for something that will never arrive’ as Boeckner portends in ‘Shine a Light’. The album depicts the construction (or maybe even the destruction) of a belief system- from family in ‘You Are a Runner’, to nostalgia in ‘Dinner Plates’, to love in ‘This Heart’s on Fire’- regardless of whether what is left in the end is of any worth at all. So maybe in retrospect I do wonder whether Apologies to the Queen Mary should’ve been more suitably titled as Absolutely No Regrets About that Fateful Night Aboard the Queen Mary instead.